How About Putting the Air into Airlines?

Robert Rosenthal's Novel Marketing Prescription for Resuscitating the Airline Industry

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Robert Rosenthal
Robert Rosenthal

CONTINENTAL FLIGHT 538, SEAT 14A ( -- "We love to fly, and it shows." Yeah, sure.

Heading into the peak travel season is a reminder of what a pain it is to fly. Not only for all of the usual reasons—overbooking and overcrowding, invasive security procedures, creeping lines, inevitable delays, screeching infants -- but also because planes these days stink. Literally.

Ethnic-food warfare
They never smelled too good to begin with, what with that flotation device they call your seat nothing more than an absorbent cushion for the preceding passenger's vile gas. But it's worse now than ever before because, by virtually eliminating food on flights, the airlines have created ethnic-food warfare at 36,000 feet. I smell a marketing opportunity.

That's not all I smell. I'm writing from seat 14A on Continental Flight 538 from Newark to Miami. The stench is making my eyes tear, and I think I'm gonna blow. I've got one hand holding my nose closed while the other is reaching for the barf bag. I'm beyond nauseated. The plane has yet to leave the ground.

It's 6:50 am and the strange little wiry guy seated right next to me is clearly enjoying what I assume to be breakfast from a Styrofoam box. The ingredients are totally unrecognizable to me; it looks like mucous-colored, already-digested gruel. Have you ever enclosed used, sweaty gym clothes in a plastic bag only to discover it somewhere months later? Well that mephitic odor is preferable to what I'm now inhaling from my seatmate's UFO (unidentified food odor). I consider this is a form of terrorism.

They checked this guy at security, so I'm relatively confident he isn't armed with more than 3 ounces of shaving cream, hair gel, suntan lotion or other weapons of mass destruction. But they did not check him for stink. And now he's using it as a weapon. Of mass eruption. Pardon me a sec; I'm dry heaving now.

No air
It's not like anyone is going to miss airplane food. But, in the free-for-all that has become bring-your-own-food-onboard, instead of asking, "Where's the beef?" I find myself pleading, "Where's the air?"

This morning's flight is not the first time I've been beset by a predicament of this nature. The last time this happened to me was on the eastbound leg of a JetBlue flight back home from Los Angeles. Shortly into the trip, my fellow passengers and I were noticeably agitated by what surely seemed like the lingering smell of vomit. This sensory assault definitely wasn't coming from the plane's galley, for the only signs of nourishment on this six-hour transcontinental journey were a bag of purple potato chips, chocolate-chip biscotti and overpriced swill.

Since there was no throw up in sight, the smell was apparently emanating from some selfish bonehead's idea of a meal. Yet in spite of the malodorous ambiance, I found myself peckish an hour into the journey, at which point I tore into the package of food that my brother had thoughtfully provided me, left over from the dinner party he threw the night before. It was a bountiful mélange of curried shrimp with roasted garlic and a salad of arugula with strawberries, very runny Brie and candied walnuts, dressed with a heady truffle vinaigrette.

Rob Rosenthal, the Kitchen MC, has amassed over 2.5 million frequent-flier miles while overeating at 2,500 restaurants around the world as an international marketing executive. He also brought liquids onboard. ([email protected])

"Fly the friendly skies." Not.
Alarmed by the noxious looks and finger pointing normally directed at a purse snatcher, it took less than four seconds to realize that I was the one making the entire plane reek. I ate it that quickly as well, out of sheer embarrassment and fear. It tasted good. And I topped it off with JetBlue biscotti, the flight's best offering, by the way. But I made no lasting friends on that flight.

Back to my current Miami flight, where I'm still suffering from the culinary jihad being waged by the dachshund-looking dude monopolizing my armrest. Some would say it's karmic retribution. I'd call it take-out terrorism. Look, one man's savory is another man's stench. Therein lies the marketing opportunity! If only an airline could claim to eliminate the variety of onboard odors, it would surely gain competitive advantage.

Well, here's how it can: At mealtime, drop the oxygen masks. That's the perfect use for these things anyway -- your own, personal air supply. Then passengers can carry on their tuna casserole. Bring grandma's goulash on board. Feel free to stink up the whole coach cabin with a French Livarot cheese whose pungency begs for a shower. Chitins, kimchi, fish sauce? Go ahead and enjoy whatever stinking food you like. No one will know the difference. Now that would be "something special in the air."

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